He's watching the world melt

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Every year about this time, there's a news story that irks the scientist George Divoky:

    For more than four decades, Divoky has spent his summers (mostly alone) on Cooper Island, north of the Alaska coast. He's watched the Arctic melt, and he's seen how those changes have devastated the black guillemot, a tiny bird he studies.
    He doesn't like to see this monumental shift in the Arctic reduced to a matter of square miles or kilometers, as it of course was last week when the US National Snow and Ice Data Center announced Arctic sea ice hit a near-record minimum on September 10.
    To him, it's about the dead birds he has to pluck from their nests and carry in his pockets. It's about the polar bears that now swarm his camp looking for food. It's about the fact an island once surrounded by ice is now surrounded by the sea.
    "It's always looked at as being a physical loss," he told me. "No one thinks about the (biological world)."
    It's an apt point, especially during a year that's poised to be the hottest on record. The consequences of climate change extend far beyond temperature thresholds and miles of sea ice lost. An Alaskan village I visited in 2009 recently voted to relocate because the permafrost is melting out from beneath it. Indian farmers are committing suicide amid drought. Scientists have attributed the deadly floods that ravaged Louisiana this summer to human-caused warming. And, shockingly, warming is fueling the "sixth extinction" in Earth's history, in which paleoecologists like Anthony Barnosky, of Stanford, say three-quarters of species could disappear.
    Black guillemot populations on Cooper Island, Alaska, are crashing because of climate change, according to George Divoky.
    Scientists say the Arctic could be free of sea ice in the summer by midcentury or sooner. "Regardless of when, it will be a profound climate shift," said Julienne Stroeve, a senior research scientist at the US National Snow & Ice Data Center.
    Few of us see these dramatic changes firsthand the way Divoky does, though.
    If we did, we'd realize climate change is about far more than numbers.
    It's actually dismantling the living world.
    Take Divoky, 70, and his birds. Black guillemots are faintly iridescent sea birds that can dive 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) beneath the surface of Arctic waters in search of food for themselves and for their chicks. When Divoky, who has a Ph.D. in animal biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, started studying these birds in the 1970s, he was working on a federal contract. He wasn't interested in climate change. Warming just happened to happen while he was there. Surprised by what he saw -- Arctic sea ice this year was just two-thirds the 1981-to-2010 average -- he devoted his life to monitoring this one bird on this one island, hoping his research